Certainly, the characters in my novel are plagued by some of these same self-doubts. At least, some of the characters are--I doubt Lt. Col. Harkleroad gives a flippity-flip about "Fobbit shame."
Anyway, without further ado, here is the journal entry--coming to you direct from Camp Liberty, Iraq:
July 8, 2005: Reading a book about a war while you’re embroiled in the midst of that very same war can be disorienting and disconcerting—like stumbling across your mother’s secret diary in her nightstand drawer while you’re still a teenager and discovering the parts where she writes about sex with your father. Some things you just don’t want to read about until you have some distance from them. [Note to Mom: I never came across any such diary--and, to be quite honest, I hope such a thing does not exist.]
For instance, I just finished reading John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. I suppose it’s a competent, sometimes lurid, account of Crawford’s year-and-a-half over here in Baghdad starting in the wake of the 3rd Infantry Division's Thunder Run (Crawford’s Florida National Guard infantry unit got bounced around between different corps and divisions during those 18 months). The narrative was too choppy and episodic to ever fully engage me, but the details seemed to be pretty authentic. I say “seemed,” because Crawford’s book describes an Iraq far different than mine. He writes of the hard, macho swagger of the infantry whose office space is the land beyond the concertina wire—the hot streets, the flying tracer rounds which light up the night sky in Christmas reds and greens, the herds of dirty goats, the scabby snot-nosed children who are patherically grateful to receive a Tootsie Roll softened from the warmth of a soldier’s pocket. For all their detail, however, there’s something a bit too cleanly-written about the dialogue and unfolding of events. Crawford’s stories are laced with hyperbole, bordering on folklore—in fact, the final three pages, which come full circle back to the title, made me wonder how much of what I’d just read was really true.
But beyond whether or not what’s on the page is a fiction hybrid, the thing that really depressed me is the fact that Crawford was out in the heat of street-level combat, while I sit back here pecking away in my climate-controlled headquarters building. It filled me with a renewed sense of guilt and a little bit of shame over the fact that I’ve huddled here in the cubicle trenches, never venturing beyond the limits of my routine. I joke about getting a Purple Heart for a paper cut, but I continue to feel like a sham. Apart from the sporadic mortar round landing in the Post Exchange courtyard, the closest I come to war is when the Blackhawks skim low overhead, the approach-and-decline Doppler effect of their blades chopping the air always make me think of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and M*A*S*H. The throaty roar of their passage above my hootch is the only physical reminder I have that there are still people like Crawford carrying out the business of war less than two miles from where I sit.
Like I said, it’s hard to read about a war in a book while, when you lift your eyes from the page, you can still hear its rat-a-tat-tat outside. I have no trouble reading about Vietnam (The Things They Carried), World War Two (Catch-22), World War One (All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms) or the Civil War (The Red Badge of Courage, which is still on my must-read list), but reading about Operation Iraqi Freedom while the PX is still stocking fresh souvenir T-shirts on the shelves…well, that makes me anxious and unsettled.
So, after finishing The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, I needed something which would cleanse my palate, fiction where I could just completely lose myself. I trailed my fingers across the spines of the books on the bookcase in my hootch and selected The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.
It didn’t take long to get lost in the Arizona arroyos, to feel the Winchester in my hand as I snuck through the canyons tracking Apaches, to taste the swirling dust as I reined my horse sharply when the whine of a bullet ricocheted off a boulder. Elmore Leonard is good medicine.